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Longread: When the Students came of age - How UCD won the 2009 First Division

Mon, May 11 2020

UCD have arguably made a knack out of winning the First Division in surprising circumstances. 2018 is a perfectly good example of the Students going on to stun many by winning promotion from the second tier, and the same can be said about 2009.

Back then the First Division was potentially the strongest it had ever been as Dermot Keely’s Shelbourne and Liam Buckley’s Sporting Fingal were expected to tussle it out for the top spot.

Few expected a rank outsider such as UCD, with only one previous triumph in the competition (the 1994/95 season), to get their hands on the 2009 First Division title.

However, if you look back now at the quality of the squad available to College at the time, one that included a future Irish international, one may not be surprised the Students came out on top.

Ronan Finn, Ciaran Kilduff, David and Evan McMillan, Andy Boyle, Greg Bolger, Paul Corry, Keith Ward and Chris Mulhall were just a number of players who featured that term for the unfancied Belfield Boys.

At the time, UCD were not only unproven in terms of their playing roster, they were also reeling after suffering relegation from the top-flight the year before.

They had also just parted with ways with experienced manager Pete Mahon, with rookie boss Martin Russell coming in to take charge of the club in his first year of senior League of Ireland management.

Pre-season

As is often customary at Belfield, the Students endured an off-season riddled with departures following their relegation in 2008.

Alan McNally and Conor Kenna both joined Drogheda United, Shane McFaul made the switch to Sporting Fingal, Matt Gregg opted to head across the Liffey to Bohemians as Ian Bermingham joined Shamrock Rovers while Shane Duggan moved to Cork City.

The departures also included Darren Meenan who joined Shelbourne, future Republic of Ireland left-back Enda Stevens made the move to St. Patrick's Athletic as Pat McWalter switched sporting codes to the GAA with Wicklow, with Alan Mahon retiring. 

“If I remember correctly, we had a big change in the budget as well,” Martin Russell recalled recently when he spoke to extratime.ie. “A lot of the players on big salaries from the year before had to go so we went into the 2009 season with a very young side.”

The former St. Patrick’s Athletic star was fortunate in a sense however, as there was a good crop of players beginning to make their way through to the first-team at the time from the A Championship winning side of 2008.

“We had no option but to use them. When the more experienced players moved on, they (the A Championship players) were going to step in and take their place.

“Most of the players came from that team, we brought in a few others as well – the likes of Ciaran Kilduff on loan from Shamrock Rovers.”

One of the few that remained was a Ronan Finn – current Shamrock Rovers captain – as the midfielder headed into the final year of his Sports and Exercise Management undergraduate programme.

“When Martin (Russell) came, he brought in a youth policy. We had a really strong group, but I was still a little bit sceptical at the start of the season,” Finn told extratime.ie.

“We set our target that we were going to win the league and I remember sitting in the dressing room thinking I don’t know about this.

“I don’t know how much I believed we could do it, but Martin was brilliant. The players he brought in were really young and talented, so he just gave us a platform to go and play.”

New arrivals

With Russell’s policy of a younger cohort of players featuring on a consistent basis, there was a number of new arrivals who fit broadly into what Russell had planned.

Ciaran Kilduff, now of Shelbourne, was one who joined from Shamrock Rovers along with now seasoned campaigner Chris Mulhall.

“I was on loan at Kildare County from Shamrock Rovers the year before and Darren O’Callaghan went from there to UCD with Martin Russell,” said Kilduff speaking to extratime.ie.

“I still had a contract at Shamrock Rovers, and to be honest, Michael O’Neill wanted me to stay with them.

“But was studying in NUI Maynooth and I was finding the workload of football and studying hard so I went to Rovers at the time to ask if I could leave which they eventually agreed to.

“I was then able to study and play in the First Division which was a lesser commitment at the time. I knew straight away that they had a bit of quality there and a few young lads starting to break through and make a name for themselves.”

But for Mulhall, the chance of senior first-team football was one that was hard to turn down, especially after the Portlaoise native missed out on a large portion of the 2008 season with the Hoops due to a long-term hip injury.

“I was on the FAI FÁS course in Ringsend and Martin was the coach in that,” Mulhall said. “Martin got the job with UCD in 2009 and asked me what I was doing.

“He asked me to go to a training session one evening. I signed the contract and we just took it from there.”

The quick start

After an off-season of change, and in truth, a fair bit of uncertainty, UCD started their campaign like a house on fire.

“I had full belief in the squad of players we had. I knew the standards that the players were at was one where they weren’t far off Premier Division level,” Russell reflects.

“We knew we had a good squad and to instil the belief and confidence early on certainly helped that.”

Five wins on the bounce, including a win away to Sporting Fingal certainly helped matters for a group of players who were quite surprised by the start that they had made.

“We beat Limerick 2-1 on the first night of the season and then we played Sporting Fingal who were expected to then go and win the league easily enough with Shelbourne coming second,” Mulhall explains.  

“It was a little bit surprising, there’s no point saying anything else. When we beat Fingal (1-0 away), confidence grew.

“I’m not saying we thought we would win the league after that game, but it gave us that little bit of belief.”

Mulhall who would go on to make 34 appearances for UCD that year was not alone in his early surprise.

“We were in no way, shape or form a favourite or we were expected to do anything that season. Shels had the likes of Paddy Madden at the time, Sporting Fingal were really strong, and probably expected to win it and Waterford were strong too,” former Dundalk forward Kilduff reflects.

“It was a tough league and we just went flying out of the traps. I remember scoring an 89th minute winner against Fingal in Santry and we just went on a bit of a roll early on and found ourselves top,” he adds.

Finn however, who impressed in his early season form, added: “I knew we had a good team and a great manager in Martin, but we were just so young.

“Looking back on the team now you would have expected us to be really strong but we were so young so we could be forgiven to think that we might not have won it.

“We had a young dressing with no real experience. I had played a few games before but that was it. When we started so well and beat Shels and Fingal that would have kicked us on again.”

Statement of intent

After five wins on the spin, a real test of character awaited Martin Russell’s young guns in the form of Dermot Keely’s Shelbourne.

The Reds boasted the likes of Dean Delany, Richie Baker, Kevin Doherty, and a Paddy Madden (who would later end up playing his trade in the Championship with Yeovil Town and earn a senior cap with the Republic of Ireland).

“We went into that game thinking if we could get anything from it, that would be brilliant,” Mulhall notes.

While a young team could be forgiven for maybe rolling over to an extent against a promotion rival in a red-hot cauldron, UCD were not going to be second best.

In a dominant first-half display, the Students took a two-goal lead, with both John Reilly and Ronan Finn running riot in Drumcondra.

“We should’ve been four or five-nil up at half-time,” Mulhall adds.  

“We were creating chance after chance, and we did the same in the second half – we blitzed them again. We got Fingal out of the way (before) and then went to Tolka and could’ve scored six or seven goals.”

Finn added: “(That) was probably the turning point for me. We were going to Tolka Park and we battered them that day.

“We were really good and that’s one that I really remember well. Shelbourne would have been potentially favourites to go up along with Fingal.

“Then UCD came along and were playing some great football. There was a great crowd that night, but we were excellent. John Reilly was excellent that night and Dave McMillan scored. We were very good.

“The Fingal games were tough; they were the team that could match us for technical players – Shelbourne were a bit more robust and direct.

“We held our own in the big games which matters because you don’t want teams to pull away from us.”

Ronan Finn

As the months rolled on, one thing was becoming apparent – a star was being born in the form of Ronan Finn.

He made 100 appearances in total for the Students, but it was in 2009 when he really took flight in Belfield.

“I would have loved to have seen the PFAI votes that year because I would be very surprised if the whole league didn’t put Finner as their player of the year,” Mulhall adds.

“He was a country mile by far and above the best player in that league. He was a big thing for us to have that year, he was massive to what we did.”

And one man who often benefitted from the creativity and guile of Finn was Ciaran Kilduff. “We clicked early,” the Kildare native adds. “He obviously had the quality there and was creative enough to find me and stand balls up to me.

“It was great but in fairness to Ronan he was like that with most players he played with. It wasn’t just me; Dave McMillan was the same.

“I don’t look back on that season thinking Ronan Finn, we had a lot of creativity in that midfield. He was one of many in there and we definitely complemented each other.”

Quality

To solely pin the UCD success of 2009 on the strength of the midfield and attack would be one that would be a short-sighted approach.

“If you were to go through that team now, the likes of Andy Boyle and Evan McMillan in centre-back were brilliant that season and the year after,” Kilduff said.  

“The year after we got promoted, we were well able to hold our own in the Premier too.

“There wasn’t much changes in the team, it was a Premier team and it was justified the year after when we held our own with the same players.”

For Finn, it was the way in which his manager Russell constructed his squad that impressed him the most.

“We were a good group, we all clicked and there were no egos about us. None of us knew any different, none of us had won anything or achieved anything.

“We were a blank canvas and it was good that we had someone like Martin. So much of it was Martin’s doing. At the start I would have been a bit sceptical, but Martin believed in us.”

EA Sports Cup heartache

It is rare that a First Division side reaches the latter stages of a cup competition, but in 2009, there was not only one, but two.

The challenge of Waterford awaited the Students, as Martin Russell’s young guns looked to reach the EA Sports Cup final.

A clash against Bohemians would eventually await the winners, and as the days counted down in Belfield, UCD were confident that they would reach the decider.

“I remember that game well and I thought going into it that we were going to win it,” Kilduff told extratime.ie

“I was maybe overconfident going into that game on a personal level. We beat them a few times before in the league, once away with ten-men and we were flying at the time as well.”

After a tight and frenetic first-half, within the space of six second half minutes around the hour mark, it was all but over for UCD.

Kenny Browne and Graham Cummins netted in the 58th and 64th minute respectively, as Stephen Henderson’s Blues stunned the Students.

Cummins made it three-nil in the 86th minute before Mulhall was dismissed for a second bookable offence.

Ronan Finn scored a consolation strike in injury time, but by then, it was far too late for UCD to stage a fightback.

“It was tough to take but it helped us in games on the run-in that if we didn’t perform, we wouldn’t win the league that year,” Mulhall notes.

“For UCD to nearly do a double and not was difficult to take and it still hurts.” Captain on the night Finn added: “I know now that you don’t get many chances to get to a final. Waterford were in our league and we would have fancied our chances.

“I don’t think it helped us win the league but that hurt was definitely something that we leaned on. We didn’t want to lose the opportunity to win a league.”

The run-in

Following their defeat in the last four of the League Cup, the Students exacted revenge on Waterford in the league just two weeks later with a 1-0 away victory away with ten-men.

Further wins against Monaghan United, Finn Harps, Mervue United, Limerick, Kildare County and Wexford Youths followed, amid two games against both Fingal and Shels that yielded dropped points.

The pressure was slowly starting to crank up on Russell’s young guns – but one of the defining moments of the run-in was a momentous home win over Longford Town.

Derek Glynn had given De Town an unlikely lead just minutes into the second half, forcing UCD into a season-defining late, late show during their penultimate home game of the season.

David McMillan drew the sides level in the 82nd minute, and just minutes later, the Students were awarded a spot-kick – with Longford’s Jordan McMillan receiving his marching orders.

Finn stepped up, and with the weight of promotion on his shoulders, he stroked the ball home past Aaron Shanahan to earn all three points.

“I remember coming in then thinking we were definitely going to win it,” Kilduff admits. “We won a lot of our games comfortably.

“We seemed to have a lot of firepower at that time and as it turned out we had a lot of players that went on to do the same in their later careers.”

But while it felt close, there was still the matter of completing the job ahead of the final two league games of the season…

Athlone

After the win at home to Longford Town, UCD were on the brink of earning promotion back to the Premier Division.

Leading Shelbourne by four points, the Students knew that should Shels be beaten by Longford at Tolka Park, they could win the First Division with a win away to Athlone Town.

Simple? Not quite. As far as UCD’s end of the stick, things could not have gone any better as they put five past a sorry Athlone in Lissywoolen.

But in the capital, a classic was unravelling at Tolka Park between UCD opponents the week before and their closest title rivals Shels.

Sensationally, Longford – who eventually finished ninth in the second tier that year – took a 3-0 lead after just 37 minutes.

Derek Glynn opened the scoring in the tenth minute, before Adrian Murphy scored in the 26th minute to make it two-nil. Glynn then made it three as a shell-shocked Shels looked out on the floor.

But that was not all in a memorable opening half at Tolka. David McAllister reduced the arrears in the 42nd minute before Richie Baker brought the deficit down to the bare minimum at the break.

However, Longford would not wilt. Tom King made it 4-2 in the 69th minute, and all of a sudden, it was on for UCD.

The Students clash in Athlone began a full fifteen minutes earlier than the game in Tolka and so it finished in Athlone well before it did in Drumcondra.

Waiting

“Every few minutes there was a goal going in (at Tolka) and it was going on forever and ever. I was just thinking ‘blow it up ref’,” Mulhall reflects.

One may be forgiven for thinking that may have been that in Dublin, but Shels scored again to make it 4-3 with Peter Hynes netting.

King then stunned the home faithful to make it 5-3 in the 87th minute. David McGill was then given his marching orders for the Reds shortly after.

Keely’s side scored again to make it 5-4 in injury time, but Longford saw the game out for the win, and there it was, UCD were First Division winners for just the second time in their history.

“We never let up once in what we tried to do or lost confidence in what we wanted to do against good established teams,” Mulhall looks back.

“Sporting Fingal were a Premier Division side but in name and for this UCD side with no established players to go and win the league was great. We done it by doing it right.”

For captain Finn, it was a night where a season’s efforts were duly rewarded in the grand manner.

“We were messing after we won it, Wardy (Keith Ward) was at it and a few of us were doing Klinsmanns on the pitch.

“At that stage we fancied ourselves to win it, and Athlone weren’t one of the better sides in the Division, so it was probably a good game to play.”

The trophy and the night in the Montrose

As UCD officially secured the league title away from home, they still had the formality of a trophy lift to contend with after their final league game of the season.

Waterford were the visitors to the UCD Bowl – after Stephen Henderson’s side just missed out on a spot in the Playoffs at the expense of Sporting Fingal.

The result saw the Blues run out 3-2 winners, but the Students were not going to be deterred from having their party put on ice.

“It would have to be my favourite moment in football,” Mulhall looks back. “It was my first medal in football so it would have to be.

“We were a good group of lads; we did a lot of growing up together and that was with both the scholarship and outside lads. We all really got on and it was a great night and weekend.”

For Kilduff, it was a moment that would kickstart a fabled career in the top-flight of Irish football.

“It was hard to motivate yourself for (the Waterford game) after winning the league the week before. It felt like a close group of players, families, and fans.

“It was a really nice experience to be a part of and it was exciting seeing it would be all of our first cracks at the Premier. It’s long enough ago now to look back on and remember how nice it was.”

Looking back

It became quite clear from early on that this UCD side were going to achieve many impressive things in their later years.

Since 2009, there has been countless medals picked up by players who featured for College during that momentous year at the Belfield Bowl.

Greg Bolger has since gone on to pick up seven major medals since then. Andy Boyle has earned international honours with the Republic of Ireland, while also playing in the Europa League group stages for Dundalk along with Finn, Kilduff and David McMillan under Stephen Kenny.

“I knew the squad was strong,” Finn – who was named as the PFAI First Division Player of the Year that term – reflects on the ’09 title winning side. “But you don’t know how good it was going to be.

“Obviously, there’s been so many great players who have come out of that team.”

Legacy

Remarkably, of the Dundalk 2016 Europa League run to the group stages – there were four players who won the second tier with UCD – Ronan Finn, Ciaran Kilduff, Andy Boyle, and David McMillan.

“It didn’t surprise me that so many great careers have come from that team,” Kilduff concludes. “At Dundalk in the European run there was four off the top of my head that were with UCD in 2009.

“There were other players who are still knocking about the place, players like Greg Bolger who has won multiple leagues, Evan McMillan who had a great spell at Sligo and Wardy who has had a great career in his own right.

“There were other great players like Brian Shortall, Ciaran Nangle and Chris Mulhall – and Roccer (John Reilly). It was a great group of lads there and they were all excellent footballers.

“Paul Corry came in at the tail end as well. I can guarantee every player who was on that team still has that medal as it was a group effort.”

And Mulhall added: “You wouldn’t have thought there would be so many great players to come out of one team.

“It is surprising looking back on it now but at the time you could tell there was some special players there.”

For manager Russell, it was the chance to give a platform to his young stars that gave him the most satisfaction.

“Most of the players we produced, the chances were that they were going to go. We were always going to produce good players when we stayed up in the years after in the Premier Division.

“Good players always go onto the next level. In a way, UCD were always going to be a victim of their own success, but it was part of what I expected.

“If I was a player, that’s what I would’ve wanted to use UCD as a platform to bounce on. It’s very good that we played a part hopefully in them all launching their football careers.”

 

UCD squad in full during the 2009 campaign

Goalkeepers: Gerard Barron, Billy Brennan, Cian Byrne.

Defenders: Andrew Boyle, Mitch Kelly, Brian Shortall, Sean Harding, Michael Kelly, Luke Hardy, Brian Connaughton, Michael Leahy, Gareth Matthews, Evan McMillan.  

Midfielders: John Dineen, Greg Bolger, Keith Ward, James Timmons, Chris Mulhall, Ronan Finn, Ciaran Nangle, Robbie Creevy, Paul Corry.

Forwards: John Reilly, Ciaran Kilduff, David McMillan, Peter McMahon, Evan Connolly, Graham Rusk, Gavin Falconer, Timmy Purcell.

 

Medals picked up by the 2009 UCD First Division winning side since departing  

Defenders:

Andy Boyle – Premier Division (2014, 2015, 2016, 2019), FAI Cup (2015), Scottish Championship (2018-19), Scottish Challenge Cup (2018-19), EA Sports Cup (2014, 2019).

Evan McMillan – FAI Cup (2013), Leinster Senior Cup (2011), Setanta Sports Cup (2011).

Midfielders:

Greg Bolger – FAI Cup (2014, 2015, 2017, 2019), Premier Division (2013, 2017), Presidents Cup (2014, 2016, 2017), EA Sports Cup (2015), Leinster Senior Cup (2014), Munster Senior Cup (2017).  

Keith Ward – Premier Division (2014), EA Sports Cup (2014).  

Chris Mulhall – First Division (2016).  

Ronan Finn – Premier Division (2011, 2015, 2016), EA Sports Cup (2013), FAI Cup (2015, 2019), Setanta Sports Cup (2011, 2013), Presidents Cup (2015), Leinster Senior Cup (2015).

Forwards:

Ciaran Kilduff – Premier Division (2011, 2015, 2016), FAI Cup (2015), First Division (2019), Setanta Sports Cup (2011, 2013), Leinster Senior Cup (2012, 2015).

David McMillan – Premier Division (2014, 2015, 2016), FAI Cup (2015), EA Sports Cup (2014, 2017), Leinster Senior Cup (2011, 2015).

 

With thanks to Ronan Finn, Ciaran Kilduff, Chris Mulhall, Martin Russell, Macdara Ferris & Tom O’Connor for their time and help in compiling this article.